The Supreme Court decision in Frazee v. Illinois Department of Employment Security, 489 U.S. 829 (1989), established that a worker could not be denied unemployment for refusing to work on Sunday for religious reasons.
Frazee denied unemployment benefits for refusing to work on Sunday
The Illinois Department of Employment Security denied unemployment benefits to William Frazee, a Christian, because he refused an offer from Kelly Services for a temporary position that would have required him to work on Sunday. An administrative review board, the Illinois circuit court, and the state appellate court all affirmed the initial decision. The Supreme Court unanimously disagreed.
Court said First Amendment protected refusal to work on Sunday
Justice Byron R. White, in the opinion for the Court, reasoned that the free exercise clause of the First Amendment protected Frazee’s refusal to work on Sunday and that he was therefore entitled to unemployment benefits.
Frazee did not claim to be a member of a particular religious denomination that taught this tenet; instead, he maintained that it was his personal conviction that he could not work on Sunday. This factor set the decision apart from Sherbert v. Verner (1963), Thomas v. Review Board of Indiana Employment Security Division (1981), and Hobbie v. Unemployment Appeals Commission of Florida (1987), because in these cases the appellants were relying specifically on religious doctrine.
Court said free exercise is based on ‘sincerely held religious belief’
The Supreme Court determined that religious belief need not be part of established religious doctrine to be considered under the free exercise clause. Instead, free exercise is based on “sincerely held religious belief,” which the Court found to exist in Frazee’s case.
The Court also pointed out that the state had no compelling interest that would override this free exercise claim. The concept of “compelling interest” is one the Court used frequently in assessing the outcome of a free exercise case.
This article was originally published in 2009. Kathryn Oates was a doctoral student at the University of Florida.